The Wisdom of Doing Nothing

‘We Made a Wildflower Meadow’ by Yvette Verner tells the story of a small patch of land transformed into a bountiful haven for nature, encouraging wildlife and helping to sustain a fragile ecosystem. Published in 2019

Having bought a barren meadow close to their home in southern England, Yvette and her husband Mike begin their journey of rewilding and re-floweing the meadow. In this extract they consider the wisdom of simply doing nothing.

Two or three generations ago, many families depended directly on the land for their livelihood. Nowadays computers feature more conspicuously than cowslips as components of everyday life, but the instinctive appreciation of nature is often still handed down from parent to child. So it was in our family, and I can still recall lying face down in a field of cowslips and breathing in their scent, wading through bluebell woods, or seeking out the earliest pale yellow blooms of primroses to pick a tiny bunch for my mother. Such behaviour would cause a sharply disapproving intake of breath nowadays, as primroses have been sprayed, ploughed, dug up (and, it must be admitted, picked) to the verge of extinction. The loss of these wonderful wild flowers can, however, be compensated for by creating a suitable habitat for them in your garden.

During the first autumn we did nothing to our prospective meadow, apart from cutting the grass short in October with a Hayterette rotary mower. Doing nothing is, in fact, a good strategy at first. How else are you to know what would happen naturally? It would be a botanical disaster to plough up a field of potential wild orchids, for instance, only to re-sow with buttercups and daisies. Of course, a meadow left unmown will revert to scrub, as first coarse grasses, docks, thistles and brambles make a take-over bid, then small shrubs and bushes, until finally — about 200 years later — mature woodland is recreated. So leaving things entirely in nature’s hands is not necessarily to be recommended.

When spring arrived, I began the twin tasks of investigating what flowers were already present in our little field, and which ones might suitably be added, sketching out a field plan using the fence posts as grid markers. Plodding methodically, head-down, back and forth across our field, I developed a headache —plus a nodding acquaintance with the leaves of sorrel, buttercup, plantain, dandelion, oxeye daisy, cat’s-ear, clover and knapweed, noting on the master plan which species lay in which square. Cowslips were there too, not of their own accord, but planted in a spirit of optimism a month earlier.

The available mix of plants did not immediately set the heart afire with visions of blooms shimmering in the sunlight. It’s difficult to get excited over plantains and dandelions, for instance, and orchids and fritillaries were plainly not going to put in an appearance just yet. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have occasionally seen fields so full of golden dandelions as to be almost literally stunning, but our flowers were sparsely scattered and would clearly need some encouragement. 

Sunset daises in the meadow

The first development was that the grass turned brown. This was somewhat alarming, and prompted an urgent study of grass types — not a subject I had given much thought to previously, grass being some thing that one mowed in order for children to play on. However, given its head, grass naturally develops different characteristics according to species composition, and our most predominant grass turned out to be sweet vernal, which sports brown feathery seed heads. Its name is variously attributed to a sweet taste when the stem is chewed, or a sweet smell when cut and drying as hay. Either way it sounded reassuringly rural, so we learned to love brown-tinged grass until the other greener species grew up to join it. The helpful tendency for them to appear one type at a time aided identification, until finally we had a dozen species to study. Their names were often aptly self-explanatory, including meadow foxtail, giant fescue, cocksfoot, and crested dog’s-tail. 

The flowers had not been idle in the mean time. Of those around the field margins I will write later, but in the field centre the first to bloom had been the locally purchased cowslip plants. A purist would call this cheating, and say that we should wait the necessary number of years for these attractive plants to reappear naturally. We knew that cowslips were native to the area, but unfortunately they are often one of the first casualties that result from changes in land man agement. I therefore could not resist planting some cowslip circles, and enjoyed their brave splashes of colour as their golden keys nod ded in stiff spring breezes. Dandelions also appeared early, and surely would be greeted with greater appreciation were they not so prone to pop up uninvited in neat suburban flower borders. As it was, their sunburst flowerheads enlivened the all-encompassing grass considerably. 

After Easter, buttercups began to bloom, both the spiky-leaved meadow buttercup and the creeping buttercup, with its more rounded leaves. By May, the grass was some 16″ (40 cm.) high, and the meadow buttercups readily cleared this height in their search for the sun. The creeping buttercups lived up to their name and flow ered nearer the earth, producing a softer, more muted golden glow. Later on, a few of the charmingly-named goldilocks buttercups appeared, their leaves even more rounded and with flowerheads often incomplete. 

When wild flowers vanish, so too do a myriad of insects and miniature ecosystems. Butterflies are the most obvious casualties, but a multitude of creatures that had time to flourish in hay meadows can no longer survive. This means that animals and birds dependent on these creatures become more scarce, and so life becomes the poorer for us all. If odd corners could become meadows again, mown in June or July and then grazed or mown in the autumn, the difference would be significant. Admittedly, ancient meadow indicator species, such as adder’s-tongue fern and green-winged orchid, are unlikely to pop up, but in meadows — as in life — there surely should be room for the small and lowly as well as the rich and famous. 

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